In 2020, I ran for state representative as a member of the RI Political Cooperative (RIPC). An avid supporter of Bernie Sanders, I was inspired to run to fight for sweeping programs like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. I believed then, as I do now, that progressives need to organize together to build power and move our state forward. That’s why, despite an eventual separation between myself and the RIPC that played out in public, I never once publicly criticized the organization.
When former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello lost his general election last year, a new House leadership team came together. It was supported by almost all of Mattiello’s staunchest critics, promised to enact key progressive policy changes, and was overwhelmingly backed by my progressive colleagues. For joining in support, I was promptly denounced and expelled from the RIPC on the basis that I had committed to opposing Mattiello — which I’d have done if he were actually running for Speaker.
Although I knew the truth was not being told, I believed speaking out about my experience within the RIPC would only deepen divisions within Rhode Island’s progressive community. I ignored RIPC’s personal attacks, and focused on working to build a real progressive coalition in the State House to deliver on major issues.
But after Wednesday’s announcement that the RIPC is targeting allies who have spent years bringing people together to enact progressive policies, like Senator Dawn Euer (without whose leadership we never would have passed the historic Act on Climate bill this session) and Representative Karen Alzate (the lead sponsor on the bill to raise taxes on the top 1 percent), I believe it’s time a sad truth needs to be said publicly: The RIPC is toxic to Rhode Island’s progressive movement.
While I applaud the new RIPC candidates for having the courage to run, and trust their motivations and passion are sincere, I know from personal experience the way RIPC’s leadership uses false pretenses to deceive and manipulate people who are ready to fight for change. These new RIPC members deserve to hear the truth.
The RI Political “Cooperative” is anything but a cooperative. Members do not have a say in any of the important decisions the organization makes. Instead, a select few within the leadership call the shots, replicating the sort of antidemocratic, untransparent State House dynamics the RIPC purports to stand against. In fact, when I was expelled from the group, I got calls from many of my fellow RIPC members saying they didn’t agree with the decision and hadn’t been consulted. So it was no surprise to me to see that all but three of RIPC’s elected candidates from 2020 have refused to be listed as RIPC members this time around. It should send a signal about this organization that so few of its former candidates have chosen to remain members.
Why might this be? Rank and file members are required to pay “membership dues” to the organization for campaign services that are for the most part never delivered. Where this money goes is largely a mystery, because the RIPC is set up as a private “nonprofit corporation,” so the money trail is never disclosed.
But we know where at least some of the money comes from: The RIPC uses the names and stories of its candidates to fundraise, theoretically on behalf of those candidates, and then requires those candidates to redirect money back to the RIPC account. The dues can even be greater than the amount of money the RIPC raises — meaning the candidates need to raise extra money just to keep up. Meanwhile other organizations, like Working Families Party and Reclaim RI, who were far more helpful in my election effort, never asked to be paid. And although these organizations have supported some RIPC candidates, within the RIPC is a culture of division and toxicity that condemns other progressive organizations based on personal resentments and old grudges.
Opaque financial structures also define the workings of Renew RI — another organization established by Matt Brown, which is professionally employing Senators Cynthia Mendes and Jeanine Calkin. They are two of the mere three remaining lawmakers who were willing to be listed as RIPC candidates in their recent release. Now Brown has seemingly used these dark-money entities to build the infrastructure for his run for governor. He purports to be running on an anti-corruption platform, but a legacy of campaign finance laundering accusations from his 2006 race for U.S. Senate, opaque finances in relation to his current ventures, and massive unpaid debts from past campaigns are phenomena he would (rightly) decry if they were associated with anybody other than himself.
The stated goal of the RIPC — to secure a government that will move the progressive agenda our communities need and deserve — is one I still hold dear. But a movement capable of achieving this aim will not be led by a group that exhibits the authoritarianism, toxicity, and pettiness that have come to define the RIPC. We need to build a coalition focused on working together with all who share our values, not one fixated on further dividing our community to advance the egos and financial interests of a select few.
R.I. state Representative Brandon Potter is a democrat representing House District 16.